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Yucca Mountain project setup took years; shutdown taking only months

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
  • Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was to be the site of nuclear waste storage
  • The Obama administration terminated the project
  • A government report says the shutdown moved quickly
  • So quickly, the report says, it could hinder efforts if the project is ever resurrected

Washington (CNN) -- When Congress decided to bury the nation's nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the federal government moved at the pace of a glacier.

But when the political winds changed and the government decided to shut down the project, it acted with unusual speed, according to a report released Tuesday. The Department of Energy reduced its staff and transferred excess property in the blink of an eye, bureaucratically speaking.

"Several DOE officials told us that they had never seen such a large program with so much pressure to close down so quickly," the Government Accountability Office said in the report.

The shutdown of the Yucca project, in fact, moved with such haste that it could hinder efforts to resurrect the plan if so desired by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the courts, the GAO said.

Yucca Mountain -- 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada -- was to be the solution to the nuclear waste problem: a final destination for the tons of hazardous nuclear waste accumulating at commercial reactors in 33 states. In 1987, Congress directed the DOE to dispose of waste in the mountain beginning in 1998.

But political opposition to the plan has been relentless, and the DOE was unable to meet the deadline. In 2008, the DOE submitted a license application to the NRC seeking to construct a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, with a goal of opening it in 2017, a date later delayed until 2020.

In March of 2009, following the election of President Obama, the secretary of energy announced plans to terminate the Yucca Mountain project and set up a blue-ribbon commission to study alternatives. The commission is scheduled to issue an interim report in July and a final report by January.

The DOE's decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain program "was made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons," the GAO report says. DOE officials believe "there are better solutions that can achieve a broader national consensus to the nation's spent fuel and nuclear waste storage needs than Yucca Mountain," the GAO said.

The GAO said that while it is unclear whether the NRC or the courts will resurrect the project, the DOE "undertook an ambitious set of steps to dismantle" the program.

Starting in February 2010, the DOE redirected funds to be used on closeout activities, setting a September 30, 2010, deadline that was largely met, the GAO said. According to the DOE General Counsel, the September 30 deadline did not allow time for formal planning, although officials stated they believe necessary plan did occur.

The DOE undertook "extensive efforts to preserve data related to its licensing efforts, as well as other scientific information relevant to the storage and disposal of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel," the GAO said.

In contrast, efforts to retain project staff were "minimal," the GAO said. The 180 federal staffers began leaving as soon as they found new jobs, placing increasing stress on the remaining staff to have an orderly shutdown.

The Department of Energy used expedited procedures to transfer a large volume of office furniture and equipment, declaring it "abandoned" and moving it to other agencies, arguing that it would cost $680 per day to store the equipment more routine procedures were used.

"The loss of staff with experience at Yucca Mountain could hinder the license review if the process is resumed," the GAO said. "Reconstituting this expertise and teamwork could be difficult should the licensing process be resumed."

In a letter to the GAO, the DOE said it "strongly disagrees" with many of the reports conclusions. Concerning the shutdown, it said the department "was committed to closing down the Yucca Mountain Project in a responsible manner, and it successfully did so." It said the GAO was inaccurate in stating it did not follow federal policy and guidance for planning.